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The Good Kind of Labels

We label people all of the time like ranchers brand their cattle. This is a highly explosive topic that is not the subject of this post.

There are other ways we use labeling or branding that is important and we take for granted. Consumer and professional products have enticing labels, as do articles of clothing, food (often many labels), drugs, and many others.

Luckily this type of labeling is not going to cause (hopefully) hate speech or riots, but is very important if you want to be informed and add another tool to your health arsenal.

I am going to focus on food labeling in this post.

Food Labels

The factual information in this post comes from the Office of Nutrition, Labeling, and Dietary Supplements in the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

It is required by law to label ingredients, serving size, nutritional value, and many other things on packaged foods.

BTW - I have to sneak this in - that is why produce doesn't have ingredient labels. It is the ingredient, no plastic or packaging included!

Of course the first labeling you see on a product is the Identifier, net weight of the contents and images. These face you when you pick up the product. They are marketing focused and people will often buy the item strictly based on its brand name or packaging. However, these are not the labels you should base your buying decision on. They are mostly window dressing, with the exception of certain adjectives such as spicy or organic. We often buy products that have visual appeal to us. Try to avoid being trapped by this technique. As anyone who is a parent knows, children want the cereal or mac and cheese that appeals to them visually such as a particular box color box or one that has a picture of a character they like. If you take your child(ren) shopping with you, sometimes it is just easier to buy the item than listen to screaming or whining. Been there, done that. The food manufacturers know this well and will target the packaging to their audience.

It is key to locate the information panel. These label statements include the name and address of the manufacturer, packer or distributor, the ingredient list, nutrition labeling, and any required allergy labeling. There are many details that must be followed and many of the specs are listed in the above manual. Labeling can constitute an entire department within a food company.

Country of origin is very important and should be available for single item packages, such as a bag of apple, a container of berries, or a dairy product. However you may not find that information for multi-ingredient items. Country of Origin is often confused with distributor. They are different. Try to dicipher where the actual ingredient(s) come from. If an item is imported, often the distributor is prominent. That is not the country of origin. The food itself might have been grown or made in Peru, Argentina, Mexico, Canada, Israel, etc. The reaon this is so important is discussed in previous posts. Suffice it to say that the further away the food source from the delivery location (grocery store, your home etc.), the greater the environmental impact. We all do enough damage to our environment every da, even more so during COVID-19. Any attempt to reduce our carbon footprint can only be a positive thing. It is always better to buy locally or as local as possible (which of course is impossible in the US for foods such as coconut, pineapple and avocado, many spices, and most produce in winter). In other countries, local might mean something totally different. I try to make sure the food I buy is grown in the US. I am not confident in the health and safety precautions used by other countries but this is personal preference. If I buy produce from another country, I buy organic. I am at least aware that my choice has a negative impact on the environment.

It is critical to read ingredient labels before throwing ite in your cart. Ingredients are listed in order of their prominence by weight in the product. If you see an ingredient listed with parentheses followed by another ingredient list, it means that the main ingredient is comprished of other ingredients. Food Allergens must be identified as well, including nuts, shellfish, wheat, eggs, milk etc.

Nutrition labeling is also required on most packages. Vitamins A and C as well as Calcium and Iron (micronutrients) must be listed. Other required nutritional components include protein, fat (and fat type), carbohydrates, and fiber (macronutrients). If you are buying a product that contains another packaged item, such as a prepackaged salad that contains a dressing or nuts etc., those ingredients must also be listed.

It is especially important to understand that fat, carbs, protein, and fiber content are, per serving. Serving sizes are generally unrealistic. The manufacturer wants you to perceive the amount of fat and calories as being low. An example is cereal. The serving sizes are barely enough to satisfy a young child.

A general rule of thumb is to look at the number of ingredients on the label. Generally if a label has more than 6 ingredients consider not buying it. Chances are it will have chemical ingredients to avoid. Food coloring and added sweeteners are examples. Pay attention to the amount of sodium per serving (salt). The problem with salt in our diet does not come from the salt shaker, but rather from packaged foods. Almost all packaged foods contain salt so it is just good to be aware of this if you have blood pressure or other issues with salt consumption. There can be negative interactions of some foods with medications. Your doctor or pharmacist should let you know but this is another good reason to read the labeling.

Once you limit the number of ingredients you will tolerate in the product, read those top 6 ingredients. They are the ones in the highest concentation. The best advice is to buy items that list only whole-foods. Sweeteners and processed gains (flours), should be avoided or limited if possible. If you can't pronounce it, you probably don't want to eat it.

Another thing I do in a restaurant or when buying premade food such as potato salad at a deli, is to ask for an ingredient list. I always ask in restaurants what is in a soup, chicken dish or whatever I am interested in. Most places are very accomodating.

There are many more attributes of food labels to be discussed. To keep it simple, focus on nutrition and ingredient labels and try to ignore hypes and claims. They come and go with the current trends. Examples include 'low fat', 'high fiber' etc.

Of course, for nutrition labeling to be meaningful you must know what the acceptable levels of consumption are. For example, how much fat or protein should you eat in a meal and in a day. These are goals to set with a nutritionist or other food expert as they vary for each individual based on multiple factors. Another subliminal message: the beauty of veggies is you rarely have to know that information - eat as much as you want! This is said cautiously as some medications do interact with foods. I think I would wonder more about the medication than the food.

One more thing. Look for the 'best sold by' and 'best consumed by' dates, especially on perishable products. Most of us assume that a product is good if it is on the shelf but this is not necessarily true. Plus, you may be buying milk, for example, on its last day for intended consumption. Sometimes these dates are hard to find but FIND THEM! I look for these on every perishable product I buy. For canned goods, I will keep expired products for a year and after that throw them away. You can judge how comfortable you are with expired products. If you are not sure, you can always open it and smell/taste a tiny amount.

We all tend to store cans that we bought long ago. They seem to get pushed to the back of the cabinet and hidden from view. I recently ate beans and chili peppers from 2017 cans. They were perfectly fine. Everyone's comfort level is different.

Below is a sample nutrition/ingredient label. As you can see the serving size is 2 T which may be fine for some things but not others. It has a fair amount of sodium (salt), and 0 added sugars. All of the ingredients are whole/healthy and there are a limited number of them (with possibly exception of the salt). Notice above the label is stamped the 'best used by' date. The expiration is Dec., 2020. These types of canned or bottled products won't have a country of origin since all of the ingredients may come from different sources. Notice also that this is organic. There is a lot of controversy over eating organic foods. I will buy them when I can afford to. Prioritize buying organic when the food is on the 'dirty food list'.

There are many other aspects of the food label. Take note of them; such as refrigeration guidelines, product use guidelines such as 'shake well', 'do not purchase if safety button is up', sku for scanning, USDA certification and other designations, parve (Kosher). In this case the identity is helpful as it tells me the type of salsa - thick and chunky as well as heat level (mild).

I bet you didn't know how complex a food label is. Being educated is the key to making good choices. Basic knowledge is the best tool in your food encyclopedia.

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